Black and white illustration of Helen Keller

The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller

Start Free Trial

Chapters 18–23 Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In October 1896, Keller began to study at the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for college at Radcliffe. As a child, she had wanted to go to Harvard; since Harvard did not admit women, Radcliffe was the nearest possible approach. She gives an account of her studies at the Cambridge School: English history, English literature, German, arithmetic, and Latin. Her reading included Schiller, Goethe, Lessing, Heine, Burke, and Macaulay. Sullivan sat with her in all lessons to interpret, but it was still difficult to keep up, particularly when lengthy passages had to be spelled into her hand. For the first time in her life, Keller was able to befriend seeing and hearing girls of her own age, some of whom even learned to speak to her.

At the end of 1897, a difference of opinion between Keller’s parents and one of the teachers at the Cambridge School, who did not believe Keller could cope with the curriculum, led to her being withdrawn from the school. After a slight delay, Keller continued her studies with a private tutor, Mr. Merton S. Keith, who taught her algebra, geometry, Latin, and Greek. It was Keith’s tuition that first gave Keller a clear understanding of mathematics. Although the examinations for Radcliffe were in the American braille notation, whereas she had only previously used the English system for algebra, Keller quickly managed to equip herself with enough English braille to take the examination, and she gained admission to Radcliffe. However, she decided to study with Keith for another year before doing so, finally matriculating in the fall of 1900.

Keller had long dreamed about going to college. She had romanticized the idea so that it seemed “a new world opening in beauty and light,” where she would learn great truths from professors who were “the embodiment of wisdom.” However, these dreams soon faded, and while she enjoyed many aspects of college, she also came to understand its limitations and disadvantages, chief among which was the lack of time to think. Ironically, she says, one spent too much time studying to think about what one was learning. She writes of the books she studied in French, German, and English, and of her survey course in history, which took students from the fall of the Roman Empire to the eighteenth century. She also singles out some of the finest lecturers, such as Mr. Charles Townsend Copeland, who came the closest to realizing her ideal of college and brought literature alive “in all its original freshness and power,” and Professor George L. Kittredge, the Shakespeare scholar, who was similarly gifted.

There remained numerous barriers to learning at Radcliffe. Few of the books she required were available in braille or raised lettering, and Keller was obliged to have them spelled into her hand, an arduous process when the text was a long and complex one. She still recalls the ordeal of examinations—intimidating enough for any student, but fraught with additional complications for her.

After her account of studying at Radcliffe, Keller discusses the vital element books have played in her life. She talks about some of her favourite books, beginning in childhood, when Little Lord Fauntleroy was the book that first awakened in her a true interest in literature. After this, she quickly devoured numerous classic works, generally in children’s versions, such as Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Charles Dickens’s A Child’s History of England. She read The Arabian Nights, The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Little Women, Heidi, and The Jungle Book. She loved the Greek and Roman epics and read the Bible long before she could understand it, continuing to this day to read it “with an ever-broadening sense of joy and inspiration,” so that she now loves the Bible more than any other book. She has always enjoyed Shakespeare, whose work has been further illuminated for her since childhood by the instruction of Professor Kittredge, but prefers the “bright, gentle, fanciful plays” to the dark, disturbing tragedies.

Although her blindness prevents her from reading as other people do, Keller asserts that “literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised.” Once she had learned to read, she felt there was no barrier between herself and her “book friends”; she has been able to find the closest thing she has ever experienced to absolute freedom in literature.

Books, however, have not been Keller’s only pleasure. She loves the countryside and enjoys swimming, rowing, canoeing, and particularly sailing. She says that many people who can see and hear have expressed surprise that she notices any difference between the country and the city. However, her whole body is constantly alive to the conditions about her. She says that in the city, she feels and is saddened by “the cruel struggle for mere existence.” She is also able to derive pleasure from many sources which most people would imagine quite closed to someone deaf and blind, such as art museums and theaters. She has sometimes been permitted to touch great works of art and has even run her fingers over the faces of great actors such as Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving, allowing her to imagine how they appear on stage.

Keller concludes by wishing that she could include all the names of those who have helped her and made her happy. She says that it has been her great privilege to know and talk to many men of genius. She singles out Bishop Brooks, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Dr. Edward Everett Hale. She has already mentioned Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, whom she first met at the age of six. Through her friend Mr. Laurence Hutton, she has also been able to meet such literary luminaries as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain. She says that it is her friends who have made the story of her life:

In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapters 13–17 Summary